Words Mean Things: Facts
Hasn’t 2017 been fun? Merriam-Webster’s sure has been having a ball, trolling the president of the United States with various definitions. While M-W isn’t the only dictionary, it has a vital role in governing English usage.
We’re not the French, with state-legislated language. No government department determines which words are “real” English words or how to use them. (I shudder to think about how abused such a thing would be under this administration). That’s why we have multiple dictionaries. And that’s about as close to “official” as we get.
Yes, English is a bit unruly. Even if we did have state-legislated language, however, I think we’d still be in for a treat: Australia would have one department, Canada another, Britain a third, and the US yet another. I mean, we sort of do that anyway, but with fewer government pissing contests.
Nonetheless, the point of the matter is words do have meaning. Generally speaking, words take on meaning when a group of people agree upon the meaning. Groups of people create “slang”: teenagers redefine words, specific professions invent jargon to describe their jobs. We define and redefine words constantly. Language is liquid.
Agreeing to Disagree
Yet we still agree words do in fact mean something. The English-speaking world has made a noise and collectively agreed it means this or that. For example, most of us agree “cat” means a furry, four-legged animal with a swishy tail and a propensity for chasing mice. Certain people might also say it means a “cool person,” but they’re likely showing their age.
A good example is the word “fact.” In English, a “fact” is an indisputable truth. It is not subjective or open to interpretation. When you hear a police officer say, “Just the facts, ma’am,” you know they’re not asking for a screed on why the witness thinks the robber was motivated. They don’t even really want what the witness thinks she saw. They want “the facts”–the absolutely, objective truth about what happened, such as “A man entered the store with a gun.”
Now, in the academic community, there’s a lot of discussion about what exactly constitutes a fact. Postmodern theory is particularly fun if you want to get into it, because it proposes there is no such thing as an “objective truth”–or at least, not a singular one. There are multiple “truths,” with each one of us living our own “truth,” based upon our own subjective experience of reality.
It might seem a little trippy, but psychology backs this up. Two sports fans sitting beside each other, watching the exact same game, will interpret the same play somewhat differently. They can still come up with slightly different versions of what happened, even if they’re fans of the same team.
The Subjectivity of Facts
Even a fact like “the sky is blue” can be subjective. If you lived in the deep jungle and rarely emerged, you likely wouldn’t think the sky was blue. In fact, you may not even have color words to describe “blue.” In some languages, blue and green are described by the same word, so grass is the same color as the sky. Add in that each individual perceives colors somewhat differently (thanks to differentiation in our biological capabilities), and we have a rather complicated mix contributing to a supposed fact. Depending on how you perceive color, your location, your cultural context, and your language, the sky may or may not be blue.
If a fact isn’t really an objective, non-disputable truth, what is it?
It’s the same thing as the definition of the word–an agreed upon understanding within the group. Within American society, for example, there’s an agreed upon notion of liberty and democracy. These are good things, and most Americans agree they have them, to a certain extent. They may not perceive someone from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan as having liberty.
Yet our Saudi or Afghan friend might say they do have liberty! And they might say they have more liberty than their American friends, even.
Similarly, in a smaller community, there may be a general consensus that “foreigners are bad.” Within that community, it’s accepted as fact or truth.
Narratives and Counter-Narratives
This is where we run up against “alternative facts.” M-W took an issue with this, saying there’s no such thing. Well, there is–it’s just that these so-called facts run counter to a narrative backed by a larger group. In some cases, these narratives are incorrect (“all Muslims are terrorists”); in other cases, they may actually be correct.
Take, for example, the narrative surrounding homosexuality. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, homosexuality was characterized as a curable disorder or disease. This narrative dominated until the 1980s, when perceptions began to change. As the LGTBQ community had asserted, homosexuality began to be understood less as a disease and more as a biological predisposition along a spectrum of human sexuality.
Keep in mind that science ultimately had nothing to do with this: Kinsey, back in the 1950s, had proposed the idea of human sexual orientation on a spectrum or scale, with complete heterosexuality and complete homosexuality as two extremes on either end of the scale, and most people falling somewhere in between.
Yet the prevailing narrative was homosexuality was a disease. The evidence to the contrary was always there; it was how the community at large chose to interpret (or ignore) it.
Now, the larger narrative accepts sexuality as more or less biologically determined: I am who I am. Some people still adhere to the older narrative, however; they still see homosexuality as a disease.
So narratives–accepted facts–do shift. It’s conceivable, then, that the “alternative facts” of the White House could become “the truth”–that is, the dominant narrative. It looks a bit like this is happening. Many people now accept these different versions of the truth.
Of course, the key here is that facts are always subjective and open to reinterpretation as new evidence demonstrates something to the contrary–such as that homosexuality is not a disease, or even that animals frequently have sex outside of estrus (commonly accepted science was that they did not, as sex was for procreation purposes only. We now accept that animals have sex for pleasure and social purposes, outside of the need to procreate, and even that they have homosexual relations on the basis–again, evidence that’s always been there, but subject to interpretation).
The problem with “alternative facts” as proposed by the White House and this administration is that these “alternative facts” are proposed as absolutes. There is no reinterpretation after this. These are unchallenged truths, unchangeable, objective.
Stagnant. Backwards. Tired.
Many “alternative facts” don’t come about because of new evidence; they’re in direct opposition to the existing evidence, often blatantly ignoring it. Climate change is one–simply ask farmers if they think the weather now is weird. Are you seeing animals and insects you’ve never seen before? We are! In Canada, we now have ticks that are native to the Southern US. How can they live here now, when they’ve never lived here for thousands of years?
Denying the evidence is like sticking your head in the sand. So yes, there are alternative facts–if we want to accept the argument that a fact is fluid and subjective, perhaps contrary to M-W’s dictionary definition. Science sort of backs up that interpretation, and we can see it play out in the way new scientific knowledge and interpretation change our narratives. Nothing is settled; nothing is solid. Knowledge changes and evolves. We’d still be stuck in the Middle Ages if it didn’t.
Boiling It Down
What does it mean? We need to be skeptical and ask question, but we also need to have open minds. Donald Trump and Co. can crusade for their “alternative facts” all they want, but if they want to argue about the fluidity and subjectivity of so-called facts, then they must also accept that even their “facts” aren’t immovable, unchangeable truths.
They won’t though. They’re right, you’re wrong–which brings us back to M-W’s more hardline definition, and by definition, they’re wrong.
And those are just the facts, ma’am.